NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Barbershop: History Of Immigration Politics


There's another big story that dominated the news this week we wanted to revisit. Congress has been unable to come to an immigration deal that would settle the status of the hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. The clock is ticking because President Trump canceled the Obama-era executive order providing temporary legal status for these young people, often called Dreamers. That order expires March 5, after which Dreamers could technically face deportation. The president left it up to Congress to come up with a solution.

We wanted to look a bit more deeply at this, so we're taking it to the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us today are Janice Fine - she is a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. She writes about the history of the labor movement and its evolving position on immigration. She's at our studios in New York City.

Professor Fine, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JANICE FINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us - Jessica Vaughan. She's director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. That's a group that favors less immigration. She's with us from Massachusetts. Thank you so much for being with us.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: And our very own John Burnett, who covers immigration for NPR. He joins us from Dallas. Hi, John.


MARTIN: So one of the things we want to try to understand is that - how each side became so entrenched politically, with Republicans generally lining up in favor of more restrictions on immigration and Democrats generally on the other side. Because it wasn't always this way. I mean, decades ago, Democrats and the labor movement in particular tended to favor restricting immigration.

Like, earlier this week, for example, when we were starting to think about this, I called retired Cornell University professor Vernon Briggs. Now, he's a lifelong Democrat, and he's well known among immigration policy circles as one of the foremost scholars - scholarly voices pushing for tighter immigration restrictions. And he says this is for economic reasons.

VERNON BRIGGS: The time that immigration became regulated in the United States, which was the end of the 19th century, labor movement recognized early on that the mass immigration that the country was experiencing at the time affects the labor market - workers' unemployment rates and wage rates. And so it's - no matter what - how people come in the United States as immigrants, they must work - all of them - or be supported by those that do. There are maybe other reasons for having immigration policy, but fundamentally, it's a labor policy, and that's what should be the grounding of the public policy.

MARTIN: So let me go to you first, Professor Fine. The polls all show - recent polls - that Democrats generally have a much more favorable view of immigration, and the labor movement, at least at the leadership level, does too. Or they're silent about it. What's changed over time?

FINE: Thanks, Michel, for your question. Labor unions have reached the conclusion that immigrant workers get stuck in the worst jobs because they're forced to accept the worst conditions in exchange for an opportunity to work. Over the years, unions have concluded that heightened workplace immigration enforcement just made matters worse by terrifying workers, driving them further underground and making them too afraid to come forward when their wages are stolen and their rights are violated. So labor concluded that the solution was organizing robust labor law enforcement.

From labor's perspective, there's nothing inherent in a job that makes it good or bad. All jobs can be good jobs if the workers who do them have negotiating power, if businesses obey the law and labor laws are enforced. Labor history's full of examples of workers - laborers, garbage collectors, grave diggers, meatpackers, hospital orderlies and janitors, to name but a few - who have elevated their occupations through unionization. So there's nothing inevitable about bad jobs...

MARTIN: Interesting.

FINE: ...And there's nothing that says that certain jobs in certain sectors have to be bad jobs. So they've concluded that the solution...


FINE: ...Is to organize rather than exclude immigrant workers.

MARTIN: OK. And let's - and Ms. Vaughan, let me ask you about the other side of this. The Chamber of Commerce, which represents big business, then the politically active Koch brothers, for example, through their political group Americans for Prosperity, were criticizing Donald Trump's immigration ideas as far back as 2015. So what happened there? Like, how did the Republican Party become home to so many restrictionists?

VAUGHAN: Well, I think that's partly because they have picked up working-class voters who have been so disappointed by the Democratic Party's embrace of the interests of immigrants, including illegal immigrants, over the interests of American workers. And, you know, I've always found that this is not so much a traditional Democrat-Republican issue or even liberal-conservative, but this is - the schism here really is between elite groups in America and regular Americans.

And that's even true for the labor movement, too, where you find many of the rank-and-file labor union members are not so excited about mass immigration and would like to see it reduced because they see the impact on their profession, on their colleagues and so on - and on their own job opportunities, and especially their wages.

But it's elite groups that are out of touch with regular Americans who tend to favor more immigration, don't think current immigration levels are a problem. And that's because they're among the Americans who benefit the most from high levels of immigration. They're not in job competition with them.

They get certain - they get labor cheaper, but it's also contributing to wage inequality and making them better off at the expense of those Americans who for whatever reason haven't had a lot of education and are - their opportunities are limited, and they're in direct competition with immigrants who are coming into the country who, by and large, don't have a lot of education and are working in those same occupations.

MARTIN: Let me get John Burnett in here. John, I also want to talk about where the politics of this are at the very moment. And I wanted to start about one of the things that Congress has been really discussing this past week, which is family-based immigration, which opponents like President Trump call chain migration. He wants to end it. And, you know, what are the facts here?

BURNETT: Well, chain migration, which is also called family-based immigration, is one of the four pillars of Trump's big immigration overhaul. And it's really one of the bedrock principles of immigrant visas as a way to start a residency and citizenship here in this country. An immigrant who's living legally in the U.S. can sponsor different categories of loved ones overseas to come and join him or her - spouses are one, minor children - those are the ones that actually - in the president's plan, he said he would preserve those, so he wouldn't actually end family-based immigration.


BURNETT: He would restrict it. So the ones that would be cut off and are legal now - categories of parents, siblings, adult children. So let's say you're from Mexico, you want to bring your 20-year-old son here. You petition for them, you file an I-130. And then they have to qualify - they have to have enough - you know, enough money to come here, and, you know, and pass a security check. And so then they would wait in line. And in Mexico, it would take 20 years or longer. Some of these countries that are very - that have a lot of people that want - want them to immigrate here have a long wait. So...

MARTIN: John, can I just jump in really quickly and just ask you, you know, how this debate is playing out. Because there are those who see family migration - chain migration, if you will - as part of the reason that immigrants succeed in the United States - because the family members all help each other. Other people are making - not all of them, but you understand the argument. But other people are making the moral argument that it's just - that if the United States says it's pro-family, that we're not in the business of breaking up families. That - they see it as kind of a humanitarian issue. What are you hearing in the debate?

BURNETT: Well, that - it would really be a fundamental shift from family, who do have family here to help them get established, to more of a skills-based immigration approach, which they say would emulate more the model that Canada and Australia have. And this would be based on an immigrant's education level, their proficiency in English, their professional ability. But we really haven't heard any specifics about this - about, you know, what skills-based immigration would look like. All we're hearing about is they want to cut in half the number of legal immigrants that come. And they would restrict these these categories of these family members that are invited.

MARTIN: And I'm sorry we have so little time to conclude this. I mean, we only have about a minute and a half left. But if I could just have a brief comment from each of you - Jessica, what do you think? I mean, is this primarily a labor market debate at the moment, or is this primarily an issue around morality and values? How do you see it?

VAUGHAN: Well, it is fundamentally a debate about the labor market effects of immigration and what kind of an immigration policy makes sense for the United States of America right now. How are we better served by continuing to have more than half of legal immigration be chain migration, or should we shift to bringing in immigrants who have skills, who are chosen because of their skills and who will help move our economy in a modern direction?

MARTIN: And Janice Fine, can I have just a brief final thought from you? And again, I apologize for the brevity of the time.

FINE: Listen - the anxiety that American workers feel is real. Jobs are paying less and less in real wages. Hours are unreliable. There's little job security, and workplace accidents and unsafe working conditions are far too common, Michel. Older American workers are facing the most hostile labor market in decades. We all see this in our own families and communities, and people who should be respected for their decades of experience are being thrown away. It's shameful.

But unions know that undocumented immigrants are not what ails the U.S. labor market. Undocumented immigrants account for about...


FINE: ...5 percent of the workforce, and the vast majority of studies show they're having very little impact...


FINE: ...On the employment prospects or wages of...

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. I thank you all so much...

FINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...And we'll have you back and talk more about this.

BURNETT: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: That was Janice Fine, Jessica Vaughan...

VAUGHAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...And NPR's John Burnett, who covers immigration. Thank you all so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.